Indonesia: Pluralism is in danger now in Indonesia

The Jakarta Post
In what was widely seen as an apparent campaign against freedom of thought and religion, the state-sanctioned Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa outlawing liberal Islamic thoughts.
Apart from liberalism, the council also declared secularism and pluralism forbidden under Islam, through one of the 11 decrees it issued during its four-day national congress.
With such an unpopular fatwa, the MUI could be headed for a showdown with progressive Islamic movements that have been growing in the predominantly Muslim nation.

Fatwa Commission chairman Ma'ruf Amin said that although the edict did not specify any organization by name, it was issued apparently in reaction to the activities of two progressive groups -- the Liberal Islam Network (JIL) and the Muhammadiyah Youth Intellectuals Network (JIMM).

"All of their teachings are deviant ... No one should adhere to their beliefs," Ma'ruf told The Jakarta Post. "Their principles are dangerous and misleading, because they believe in only what they think is right and use pure rationale as justification."

Proponents of liberal Islam use rational interpretations of Islamic texts as opposed to literal meanings, view religious truth as a relative concept and believe in the separation of religion and state.

MUI deputy chairman Umar Shihab said that in the council's view, both the Western-influenced JIL and JIMM have strayed from the Indonesian brand of Islam.

"The views that are developing in Europe and America are heretical and not allowed here," he said. "However, we must not counter them with violence, but with logical arguments."

The fatwa, which was read out on the third day of the congress without any resistance from over 300 participants, stated that Islamic interpretations based on liberalism, secularism and pluralism "contradict Islamic teachings".

The fatwa defines liberal Islam as interpreting Islamic texts using pure rationale to selectively accept only certain religious doctrines.

"For example, they (liberals) say that a man cannot have more than one wife because it is gender bias, when in fact polygamy is allowed by Islam, as long as the husband can be fair," said Ma'ruf.

Secularism by definition, according to the edict, is the belief that the role of religion should be limited to an individual's relationship with God and that society should be guided by social conventions.

The fatwa outlaws pluralism that views all religions as being equally valid and having relative truths.

"Pluralism in that sense is haram (forbidden under Islamic law), because it justifies other religions," Maruf said, adding that people should be allowed to claim that their religion is the true one and that other faiths are wrong.

However, he stressed that the council accepted the fact that Indonesia was home to different religions and that their followers could live side by side.

"Plurality in the sense that people believe in different religions is allowed," Ma'ruf explained. "As such, we have to respect each other and coexist peacefully."

The MUI also renewed its 1980 fatwa against Ahmadiyah, an Islamic group that does not share the mainstream Muslim belief that Muhammad was the last prophet.

The new fatwa contained stronger language than the previous one, calling for the government to ban and dismantle the organization as well as freeze all of its activities.

The council also issued a fatwa, reaffirming its 1980 ban on marriages between people of different faiths.

The MUI also banned interfaith prayers, unless they are led by a Muslim. Other edicts issued included those forbidding women from leading prayers when men are in attendance.

Commenting on the fatwas, particularly the one against liberal Islam, prominent Muslim scholar Azyumardi Azra dismissed it as "ineffective and even counterproductive".

"I don't agree with such a fatwa. The state cannot enforce it for Muslims as it's not legally binding. Muslims can or will ignore it."

He said the ban on liberal thoughts reflected the intolerance being promoted by the MUI and indicated that it was trying to curb freedom of thought. (002)

Pluralism within Islam

After Indonesia's success in hosting an interfaith dialog involving 39 Asian and European countries in Bali last week, the nation would do well to address a no less pressing issue at home: promoting an intra-faith dialog, more specifically among different Muslim groups. The predominantly conservative Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) is about to close the door on any further dialog in the search for truth if it goes ahead with issuing a fatwa (edict) that would effectively ban liberal interpretations of Islam.

We already know how destructive some MUI fatwas can be.

Last week's mob violence against the followers of Ahmadiyah in Parung south of Jakarta was prompted by a fatwa that does not recognize the sect, which has it origins in what is now Pakistan, as Islam. Police stood by while the attack by some 10,000 people was taking place. Later, police escorted the Ahmadiyah followers to leave the sect's compound in Parung, "for their own safety" and thus virtually closed down the complex.

In May, police arrested Yusman Roy, a preacher in the East Java town of Malang for conducting bilingual prayers (in Indonesian and Arabic) with his followers. Police acted upon an MUI fatwa that says the practice was causing public unrest.

In both these instances, the public unrest was the reason that prompted the police action rather than the practices that the MUI found objectionable. And in both these instances, we know that the unrest was caused by the fatwa rather than the practices.

The authorities were right in not acting upon the MUI fatwas that demanded the outlawing of Ahmadiyah and the bilingual prayers. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom to practice our faith. The government has no right to regulate what we believe in or how we practice our belief, so long as we do not violate any laws. Neither Ahmadiyah nor Yusman were breaking any state laws, no matter what the MUI says.

But the authorities were dead wrong in not coming to the defense of the Ahmadiyah followers and Yusman and his followers. Instead, in the first case, the police stood and watched, and in the second, they detained Yusman Roy.

The state has a duty not only to guarantee the right of people to practice their religion, but also to protect them against others who try to stop them. The government passed the first test, but miserably failed the second.

Given these two recent episodes, we can only speculate about the fate of those Muslim thinkers -- who, in recent years, have been challenging the conservative/literal interpretations of Islam -- if MUI goes ahead with its fatwa outlawing what it conveniently terms liberal Muslims.

The threat to issue such a fatwa emerged during the ongoing MUI congress. Sadly, as the umbrella organization for all Islamic organizations in the country, the council fails to reflect the diversity of Islam that exists in Indonesia. Instead, going by the fatwas they have issued, MUI is looking more like an exclusive club of conservative leaders and thinkers. And it is a club the violates one of the main principles of Islam that says "there shall be no coercion in matters of faith."

Still, in public forums, including in the op-ed pages of this newspaper, we know there has continued to be a raging debate between the conservative and liberal Muslim thinkers in recent years. Such a discourse has been fruitful for the Muslim community in this country in the search for truth. It has also brought forward the realization that while Muslims believe in one God, in one holy book and that Muhammad is their last prophet, there can be more than one interpretation of Islam. This is why this intra-faith dialog has been spiritually enriching, especially for the followers of the religion.

Sadly, this dialog would be discontinued if the conservatives in MUI had their way. "Truth" would then be the monopoly of one group of people. Muslims would be all the poorer if that is the case. And the real message that the MUI is sending out is that if Muslims cannot hold a dialog between themselves, then what chance is there for the interfaith dialogs, something that the government is trying to promote at home, regionally and internationally.